I’ve barely made it down the road from the airport, but I can’t resist. I pull the rental car over and jump out.
I’m in the West Texas city of San Angelo, in a field that’s empty except for a lone combine amid some trees. Storms have been circling — good news in a state longing for drought relief — and I can trace them at the horizon, far in the distance. Dark clouds start to open on one side of the expanse, and rain pours down who knows how many miles away. The sun breaks through in another direction, and its rays stream through like one of those Renaissance paintings of heaven meeting earth. I turn around, and across the highway, puffball clouds streak across powder blue; over there, it’s an entirely new day.
It’s been almost 30 years since I lived in San Angelo, but the sky still slays me every time I visit. I don’t usually get all that homesick for this city of 93,000; Austin, where I went to college, has a stronger hold on me. But a few years ago, when I saw a Texas Monthly spread with incredible panoramic photos of storms across the Central and West Texas sky, I practically burst into tears. And in person, that sky never fails to fill me with a swirl of emotion as rich as the view overhead.
Family aside, that’s about as powerful a connection as I might ever feel to my home town, which I was ready to leave as soon as I graduated from high school. These days, when I make my annual or semiannual return, I mostly sit indoors and talk to my mother.
So when the National Trust for Historic Preservation put the city on its annual Dozen Distinctive Destinations list this year, my reaction was immediate: Seriously? San Angelo? The place that I tend to describe to friends as 41 / 2 hours from everything? Or as one of the largest cities in the country without access to an interstate highway? Or much else?
I studied the Trust’s description: Okay, it’s true that Fort Concho, the reason the city was founded, is one of the best-preserved frontier citadels in the nation. And yes, I knew about Miss Hattie’s Bordello Museum, where you can see where the namesake madam and her girls entertained men until the 1940s. And I’ve been to the newish art museum, with its roof that resembles a covered wagon. I’ve always found the riverwalk through town a little sad compared with, say, San Antonio’s. But wait: What is this Paintbrush Alley? And . . . a waterlily park? In parched West Texas?
Either San Angelo has more going on than I’ve given it credit for, or the National Trust is getting a little desperate.
So I made a vow. The next time I visited, I’d get out and about (with my mother in tow as much as possible), to get a better idea of what San Angelo has become.
I owed it to the city to look at more than just the sky.
Two centuries before the founding of San Angelo, the story goes, Franciscan missionaries who traveled here came upon a crystal-clear stream overflowing with lilies. They named it Rio Florido, or River of Flowers. (Later, it took the name Concho River in honor of the many shells, or concha, that explorers found, some of them containing freshwater pearls.) Those flowers, which botanists call Nymphaea elegans, fell victim to turtles and other predators and disappeared from Texas streams.
But one man has done more than his fair share to save and display the lilies — not just Nymphaea elegans but also countless other varieties — and really, I’m embarrassed that I hadn’t heard of all this until recently.
Ken Landon started building what would become the International Waterlily Collection in 1988, just five years after I moved away from San Angelo. In Civic League Park, just across the street from the church where my mom married my stepfather and next to Central High School, which some of my siblings attended, six pools of lilies shimmer like an oasis in the West Texas sun.
The park has become a bona fide sensation, with thousands of visitors a year. And get this: This collection of waterlilies, in little old San Angelo, Tex., the place I love to make fun of, has been named one of the best . . . in the world.
As soon as I visit, on a trip home in September, I can see why. The place casts a spell. I could spend all day going from flower to flower, pad to pad. It’s a good thing the six pools are fenced off, or I might jump right in, like an unwelcome frog.
We amble around, my mother pushing her walker along and taking frequent breaks at the pools’ edges while my stepdad and uncle wield their cameras and I try not to drop my iPhone in the water. We snap shots of lilies with such names as Rhianna and Hollandia and Sunny Pink. Some blooms sit right at the edge of the water, and others rise up, their stems tall. Some are giants and others tiny, flashing yellows, pinks, purples, reds and combinations thereof, while beneath them the green pads undulate and shimmer.
In the largest pool, the gigantic pads look like exotic platters. These must be the Victorias, Amazonian lilies that bloom in the evenings on a three-day cycle. All I see are some fading pods, but my stepfather, Vern, tells me that when they’re in bloom, they’re breathtakingly huge. We sit for a while on benches at the edge of the terraced landscaping, in the breeze. “It’s so peaceful, isn’t it?” my mother says.
My home town and surrounds possess a fiercely independent streak that probably goes back to the 1800s, when Fort Concho was protecting the frontier settlements from “hostile threats” (a.k.a. Indians). More recently, in 2008, the fight over a raid on a Mormon sect in nearby Eldorado ended up in the courtrooms of San Angelo, the county seat. In 2009, the city’s very popular mayor shocked his constituents by announcing that he’d moved to Mexico to pursue a relationship (with a Mexican citizen — and a man, to boot) and was resigning.
I knew of one place in town that embodies this do-your-own-thing spirit: the Chicken Farm Art Center, a compound that potter Roger Allen bought with two partners in the 1970s and transformed into an artistic haven. They spent a year turning the chicken coops into studios and the poultry-processing buildings into living quarters and gallery spaces. It happens to be right down the street from my mother’s house, so I’ve been there many times, usually to look at the funky metalwork and other pieces on holiday open-house weekends.
A few years ago, I noticed that an inn had opened on the site, so for this trip I booked the most interesting room, a round, cavernlike dwelling that was once a grain silo. On my attempt to scope out what’s cool in my home town, I’d get to hang out amid the art — and some of the artists — without any pressure to buy anything.
The 15 artists at the Chicken Farm don’t necessarily keep regular hours (“Open till closed, closed till open,” reads one studio’s sign), but fabric maven Janet Moran was puttering around in her space next to the inn’s breakfast room, so I chatted her up as I caffeinated. Her work strikes me as Quilting 2.0: a landscape with stitching to give the effects of sky and mountains; a more abstract piece with streaks of gold, purple and green, inspired by a visit to Yellowstone National Park, where she had noticed a carpet of vivid green that turned out to be baby pine trees seeded by an otherwise destructive wildfire.
You don’t have to go into any studios to check out the Chicken Farm art: There’s plenty of it everywhere you look — iron sculptures, stonework, mosaic benches, even bird feeders made from Mason jars and pot lids. I’d forgotten just how much rustic-Texas cool the place radiates.
In fact, San Angelo has apparently made a big commitment to public art. I ask Rashda Khan, a local food writer, novelist and member of the Public Art Commission, to show me some of her favorite examples.
Before we hit Paintbrush Alley, she wants to show me something closer: Art Opens Doors, a lineup of 17 doors, each one painted by a different artist, hung in an alley next to J.B. Automotive downtown.
There’s a gnat’s-eye view of a runner’s feet taking flight — and a tiny gecko crawling up one calf. On another door, a gnome rides a flamingo: two icons of kitschy lawn art, together at last. But my favorite is the cheeky pinup girl by Michelle Cuevas (a Chicken Farm artist), hanging right next to an actual doorway that looks into the garage. As Khan and I stroll back and forth, a big, snaggle-toothed guy with a ponytail and grease-covered overalls comes into the light. “It’s amazing you get to work amid all this beauty,” Khan tells him.
“Ayup,” he replies.
Khan takes me to see the sparkling new library, a $17 million project in the distinctive former Hemphill-Wells department store building, which had sat vacant for decades. It’s bright, airy, colorful and amazing-looking. My favorite aspect of the design is large circles that look like cutouts of the traditional drop ceiling, with white foam tiles and all, but lined in metalwork that makes them look like upside-down crowns. “It is so not San Angelo, and I mean that in a good way,” I say to Khan in a conspiratorial tone. She smiles, lowers her voice and replies, “Well, they did use New Yorkers to design it.”
Finally we amble through Paintbrush Alley, a wandering block of murals and other pieces that more than a dozen artists and volunteers created in 2005. A cab, an old movie theater entrance, a chapel: These are artworks, not the real thing. (Well, the cab is really a cab, but it’s painted and stationary.) Painted on the windows of one brick warehouse wall are scenes of what might be going on inside — a woman adjusting her stockings, a sailor tipping his hat — if the place were inhabited. An old couch sits decaying on one wall, loose upholstery hanging off its arms like two giant tongues.
Is it part of the exhibit, too? I have no idea. But I do know that if you dropped me into this alley from space and asked me to identify my location, I’d guess at least a dozen places before I hit on the truth: that my home town might actually be a little hip.
As a food editor and writer, I’m of course interested in the culinary scene, but I don’t have high hopes for it. I have good memories of a couple of decent Tex-Mex joints, but I’ve been disappointed on recent returns to some of my favorite steakhouses. And amid a sea of national chains, I haven’t found new independent restaurants good enough to draw me back. But I’m determined to keep an open mind.
I find what I’m looking for at Cork and Pig Tavern, where the pizza has a nice char from the wood-fired oven (something I never expected in San Angelo) and an appropriately Texan touch in the green chilies on top. But it’s not long before I get a hankering for something more old-school, so I suss out the steakhouse situation once again.
Ironically, for all the beef on the menus, San Angelo is better known as sheep country, as anyone who was around back in the Miss Wool pageant days can tell you. The city’s Producers Livestock Auction is the nation’s largest for sheep and lambs, and yet lamb doesn’t really show up on the plate, in my experience.
When I was growing up, my favorite steakhouse was Margaret Heinen’s Western Sky, where the German-born Heinen instructed her cooks to rub the steaks with garlic, a little flour and a lot of salt, and grill them over mesquite. They were divine. Western Sky has been around since 1967, just a couple of years after I was born, but Heinen sold the place in the 1990s, and things haven’t been the same since. The last time I was there . . . well, let’s just say that it will remain the last time. Same goes for Zentner’s Daughter, another childhood favorite that’s probably the most-talked-about steakhouse in town.
I decide to revisit one of the oldest restaurants around. Twin Mountain Steakhouse, a few miles outside town, is five years older than Western Sky, but it hasn’t changed much at all. Deer heads and stuffed turkeys take their place on the dark walls, and the waitresses serve what the place is known for: “scraps,” or big chunks of tenderloin pieces, plus family-style platters of sirloin. I prefer the latter because it still has a little chew to it, in a good way, but both styles of meat are expertly grilled (if slightly overcooked), generously seasoned and full of flavor. And the onion rings are textbook-perfect.
The only thing that seems different is the requisite baked potato — or more specifically, what comes with it. These days at Twin Mountain, rather than a side dish of toppings, a sad little squeeze packet of Daisy sour cream sits on the plate, and you have to rip it open yourself.
Of course, the best thing about Twin Mountain might be the prices: That plate of “scraps” — enough to feed four — is just $31.99. I find amazing deals in other places, too. When I take my mother and stepfather to the weekly farmers market to see what crops could possibly be managing in this drought, it’s like a trip to the dollar store. Four small eggplants? A dollar. A medium butternut squash? A dollar. A quart of baby peppers? Guess.
The nearby fine arts museum, which we hit on my last morning in town, is also a bargain. Most days it’s just $2 to enter this limestone building, but it’s National Museum Day, so even that is waived. We poke around in the permanent pottery display, where Chicken Farm founder Allen’s work is prominent, and then edge our way around the first-floor gallery, a crowded embarrassment of riches. I’m fascinated by a montage of photos, each of a rainbow, arranged so that they connect and spiral. As my mother rests on a bench, I make my way upstairs, taking in the abstract expressionist works by the late Zanne Hochberg (a Texan) and then going out onto the terrace, where workers are setting up for a wedding.
I gaze out over the San Angelo skyline: the Concho River in the foreground and the mostly squat group of buildings behind it. Above it all, of course, is that sky, on this day a deep blue with wisps of clouds here and there. It’s as stunning as ever. But now I know that the next time I come, there’s so much more to see.